Chimney fire damages south Austin apartment complex

Austin

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Austin Fire says crews were able to contain a fire to a chimney in a south Austin apartment complex Sunday night. No one was hurt.

Fire crews say they got multiple calls around 11 p.m. about a fire at the South Lamar Village Apartment Homes.

When crews arrived, they found the fire in a chimney that was moving to the attic between the first and second floors of the complex.

Crews were able to quickly knock down the fire and contain it to the chimney.

According to the Austin Fire Department, the cause was accidental. The construction of the chimney box frame was too close to a fireplace, according to AFD Division Chief Thayer Smith. Smith said residents in one of the units were using their fireplace Sunday night.

City code requires the inner framing of a fireplace to be a certain distance away from other combustible materials, a concept called clearance, in order to keep fires like this from sparking.

Despite these measurements being approved by building inspectors before the fireplace is completed and the apartment rented out, experts said the structure can shift, especially in older buildings.

“If it is touching it for an extended period of time while the fireplace is getting used, it can get too hot and catch fire,” said Amber Seals, the fireplace manager at Churchill’s Fireside and Patio. “Builders are veering away from this in commercial settings and definitely apartment homes.”

AFD Division Chief Chris Swenson said these types of fires aren’t common, but it will be something the department continues to look into.

Swenson said insurance investigators will study the fireplace and the fire marshal may get involved to enforce code violations.

It is unclear if apartment management will inspect other apartments to make sure there are no underlying issues with other residential fireplaces. Experts said the only way to do that is to demolish part of the fireplace structure to view the inside framing.

Greystar, who manages the South Lamar Village Apartment Homes, could not be reached for comment on Monday. An independent contractor working the apartment clean-up said they are off for the MLK holiday.

Fire damages complex on South Lamar. (KXAN: Richie Bowes)

Tenant Impact

People living in 12 of the building’s 24 units were able to go back inside after the fire was put out. Smith said those living in 11 other units have to wait until management can check and fix the electrical lines and repair damage. Smith said it would likely be by the middle of the week before those units could be reoccupied.

Many of these people are opting to break their lease and move out early, an option apartment management offered as consolation without reprimand.

Emily Foster, who has lived in the complex since May, said she has family to stay with nearby. She had to rush out of her apartment with her pets in the middle of the night.

“I opened the door the first time and didn’t see anything. But the second time I woke up, I had smoke in my apartment and I could hear people yelling,” Foster said “I opened the door and this entire hallway, this open space was just white with smoke.”

Ivin Tibbins, who has lived in the complex for nearly a year, said he will be forced to transport his belongings to a storage space while they wait for their home to be ready. They recently closed on a house, but will elect to stay in a hotel for the time-being.

“It went from breathable to non-breathable in seconds,” Tibbins recalled. “There are eight apartments here that all share common walls, so if one thing goes wrong with one of them, now all eight of us have to find somewhere to go instantaneously.”

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